HIV/AIDS youth advocates across the United States held events and many gathered in Washington D.C. this April to attend the first congressional briefing in honor of National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Capitol Hill.
One of those attendees was Khadijah Abdullah, a graduate in public health. Abdullah along with Asma Hamid R.N. attended the event put on in partnership with Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s (D-Calif.) office. The two young activists represented the advocacy organization RAHMA, of which Abdullah is the founder and president.
Having seen firsthand the stigmatization HIV+ Muslims face within their own community, she founded RAHMA in Washington D.C., where HIV infections rates are the highest in the nation. Knowing that she wanted an Arabic name and an acronym, with the help of two other friends, she decided on Reaching All HIV+ Muslims (RAHMA), which translates into the word mercy.
Abdullah is familiar with working with families in need. Her work with AmeriCorps VISTA at Horton’s Kidsen enhanced her skills, necessary for her work with RAHMA. Parenting classes, workforce development classes, case management, legal aid and other services and helping empower families in Ward 8 through building partnerships with local organizations are highlights in her advocacy resume. Most importantly, spurred by thoughts of her friend who contracted HIV, she set up biweekly HIV testing on site and coordinated HIV education workshops.
“Many Muslims believe that HIV does not affect our community. This is far from the truth. Many of our brothers and sisters are living with HIV and they do not have anyone to turn to. They are afraid of the stigma and being shunned from the community,” says Abdullah. Support services can help people cope with their diagnosis, reduce risk behavior, and find needed services.
Founded in March 2012, RAHMA based in the Washington, DC area became a corporation in November of last year. Five members, under the age of 30, of diverse backgrounds sit on the board, including a nurse. Karim Amin is RAHMA’s Vice President. He was raised in inner city Baltimore, MD, and attended Towson University. Personally affected by HIV/AIDS as six of his family members have died from complications from the virus, he hopes that his involvement in RAHMA will help prevent other families from enduring what his has. Other board members are Shahed Haque, Sarah Bounse, and Nabeelah Naeem.
“Many Muslims believe that HIV does not affect our community. This is far from the truth. Many of our brothers and sisters are living with HIV and they do not have anyone to turn to. They are afraid of the stigma and being shunned from the community,”
RAHMA’s next major event is scheduled in Washington DC’s oldest Islamic center, Masjid Muhammad. In collaboration with Whitman-Walker Health, RAHMA will offer free HIV testing. “Masjid Muhammad will host us and the event is open to everyone,” adds Abdullah.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine health care.
A powerful story of a sister who was raped and contracted the disease is shared on the RAHMA website.
“I just started taking medications last year after I was a foot and a few toes into the grave. By Allah’s Mercy and Kindness, it has been working well. My viral load is undetectable, and my T-cell count is about 224. It was at 25 when I started. I was in denial for a very long time,” she writes.
Being aware of one’s status is of importance and Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Turkey require couples to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted disease before getting a marriage license. “I would [get tested] and tell my future spouse to as well. We learned in Fiqh of Love, a AlMaghrib class that everyone should get tested generally, just in case they have any sort of disease before they get married,’ says S.I, a young student of knowledge from Virginia.
African Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV. CDC estimates that they accounted for nearly half (44%) of all new infections in 2010, despite making up only 14% of the population. Research shows that African Americans do not engage in riskier behavior than members of other racial/ethnic groups. However, there are many social and economic barriers such as poverty, racial discrimination, limited access to health care and housing, and incarceration— that can increase the risk of HIV.
“Slammed with the reality we are currently up against, [testing] is a must requirement between intended individuals, specifically in the US (and even more specifically in the DMV),” says R. Muhammad of Maryland.
“We are an organization that is trying to reach out to HIV+ Muslims nationwide. Our first step is to start with the DMV area. We plan to host educational workshops in Masjids to help break down the stigma and educate our brothers and sisters. We also have a research team that is preparing statistics on incidence and prevalence rates of HIV infection in our community and will also write up our own articles and journals,” says Abdullah. In the line with Islamic values, RAHMA will not turn anyone away who seeks out services provided regardless of their religious beliefs.” We don’t turn anyone away that is not Muslim,” says Abdullah.
There are a number of important issues that affect the Muslim community and need to addressed, specifically screening and outreach since they are more unlikely to seek help. Another service that RAHMA plans is to train outside organizations to work with Muslims living with HIV; increasing culturally competent outreach. The stigmatization is so great that only a dozen or so HIV+ folks have reached out to RAHMA. Those that did reach out share that marriage is a major concern for people living with HIV; a lifestyle choice that many take for granted. Most do not want their real names to be revealed, hiding their disease as the stigma is great but do see the need for support.
Other needs identified were support for living with a chronic disease; they need support from community- support groups, a safe space where people who share their experience can meet, without being judged and ostracized. Last year in October, Abdullah walked with former board member Nuzhat Islam at the AIDS Walk DC. The response to the work of RAHMA has been mixed. Many people have been supportive and happy, according to Abdullah. Some people in the local area, however, negate how important it is to educate about this topic at Islamic centers. “Some are open and ready, while some masajid do not think it is a good idea--because it is taboo--but it is taboo because our communities don’t want to talk about it,” says Abdullah. Last Mother’s Day, RAHMA held a successful event for the youth at the McLean masjid about the importance of learning about prevention. “Many youth are already exposed to these things outside the masjid. Our job is to educate them about making good judgements and decisions,” says Abdullah, “and spread awareness of how one can contract it and just as importantly how one doesn’t.” In August, an awareness event with Project REACH is in the works. “We also hope to register a booth at the ISNA convention and [possibly] host a session at ISNA,” says Abdullah.
As word about the new organization spreads, RAHMA hopes to have gatherings in other states. First of December is Worlds AIDS day and RAHMA is hoping to hold its first fundraising event in the DC area. Right now RAHMA is funded by personal donations. As soon as RAHMA receives its 501c3 status, the board will start applying for grants. The team behind RAHMA envisions a one stop shop where people living with the disease can see a doctor, get medication, and meet with a case manager. The ultimate goal is a fully functioning facility with nurses that offers direct and indirect services and a research department. In order to have an AIDS free world everyone needs to check their status. To learn more about RAHMA please visit www.haverahma.org.